Dianne Doan has spent the past few years establishing herself as a young actor on the rise in Hollywood. Exotic, worldly, hard working and ever-evolving, she continues to showcase her undeniable talent through the characters she brings to life on screen. Instantly recognizable to many pop culture fans from her captivating role on Disney’s ‘Descendants,’ where she played the daughter of the legendary Mulan, Dianne looks to continue her hot streak in 2016. This dynamic young actress can soon be seen n as one of the newest series regulars on season four of the critically acclaimed History Channel series “Vikings,” set to premiere February 18 at 10/9c. The series is inspired by the tales of the raiding, trading, and exploring Norsemen of early medieval Scandinavia. It follows the exploits of the legendary Viking chieftain Ragnar Lothbrok [Travis Fimmel] and his crew and family. Dianne enters as the mysterious “Yidu,” who arrives on the boats from Paris where she was traded as a slave and brought back to Kattegat. She immediately intrigues Ragnar, who must know more about her past. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Dianne Doan to discuss her journey as an actress, her roles on Disney’s ‘Descendants’ and the critically acclaimed History Channel series “Vikings,” how the experiences compare and contrast and the challenges she has faced along the way.
Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you get started on your journey into the entertainment business?
I had a very strict Asian upbringing, so academics was the course my parents wanted me to take. In Grade 9, when I went to high school, I was given the opportunity to select Drama 9 as an elective and I took it! That was without my parents knowing! [laughs] I kind of fell in love with the process of the unknown. It was terrifying because it was mostly improv and doing anything that puts you in a vulnerable place was scary for me but always intriguing in some way. I carried on and somehow I luckily convinced my parents to let me take a year off after high school. I moved to Vancouver and joined an acting program. I have been taking classes ever since! I went to school afterwards, as well. I really just paved my own path and it definitely wasn’t what my parents wanted me to do!
It seems to be working out well for you so far, so that is good news!
Let’s knock on wood that it keeps going on that right path but thank you! [laughs]
Who were some of the people who had a big influence on you and your craft?
When I was growing up, there weren’t a lot of Asian actors on screen. Growing up, seeing Lucy Liu in “Charlie’s Angels” was such an eye-opener for me because she was one of the leads alongside Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz. That was really cool! Strong women in the acting scene really inspired me, people I could relate to and I would want to embody their career. Emma Stone is a great example. She is quirky, can do comedy and indie stuff. The same goes for Olivia Munn. Mentor-wise, I found a really good group of people in Vancouver that I trained with, my acting teacher in particular, who have really helped me along over the last two years with auditions and stuff. Making sure you have some support people on your side is something I have found very important.
A lot of people will recognize you from your role as Lonnie on Disney’s “Descendants.” That is such a cool project. How did you get involved with the series?
I first auditioned for “Descendants” as a dancer. When I heard about the project, at the time, they weren’t looking for a character that I fit the role for. I went out for it as a dancer because I do have a dance background. A week later, they were looking for someone to play Lonnie, who is Mulan’s daughter. I got to go into the room with Kenny Ortega, the director, and Wendy Japheth, the executive producer. I think I had a great audition. It felt really good! A few weeks later I found out I got the part. That experience was the complete opposite, like day and night, to “Vikings” in terms of content and everything! We had about three weeks of dance rehearsals to learn all of the sequences and the musical numbers. We did about six weeks of filming throughout Vancouver and BC in the lower mainland. We went to Victoria for about 10 days. Luckily, that project was coming through and that is how myself and a few other locals became part of the project.
Coming from a dance background, how has that skill set impacted you as an actor? Did you find a lot of parallels?
I think I am very aware of my body movement-wise. That has helped with choreography, whether it is fight scenes or action scenes. Being aware of your body is a tool. I grew up doing ballet since I was 10 years old and then I got into the contemporary world In Vancouver. Having those skills has definitely helped. Acting classes have helped add the elements of emotion in there. Going out and performing on a stage and knowing how to emote is very important, so I would say there are a lot of parallels between the world of dance and the world of acting. Absolutely!
You mentioned your role on History’s “Vikings.” This is another exciting role for you! Tell us about how you got involved and what it’s like to be a part of a unique project like this one?
It has been amazing so far! I am so excited for the premiere (February 18th, 2016 at 10/9 on The History Channel). I am a little nervous because I haven’t seen the finished episodes, so I will be watching along just like everyone else! When you shoot, you never know what is going to make it to the screen. I am curious to see how they tie all of the characters and storylines together! I put an audition on tape because I was acting out of Toronto at the time. They flew me out to Ireland to test and I stayed there for about six months shooting the show! It was unbelievable! I had never moved out of the country before to work, let alone lived on my own so far away from my family. The whole experience was eye-opening!
That sounds like quite a change of pace!
Yeah! I had only a few days notice that I could possibly either come home to Vancouver or stay over there in Ireland. It was a bit of a whirlwind, the whole experience, from the beginning!
Was there something about the role that spoke to you and made you want to pursue it?
Yes and no. They do such a good job at keeping it under wraps. What was in the breakdown for the audition was very vague. It was written like, “Mid-20s, Asian descent, possible love interest to Ragnar, coming from The West.” I had to go and do a lot of my own creating of my backstory. For the audition, all we got was a few select pages of script and they didn’t tell us much of anything before we got there. Once I was there, I was able to ask questions of writer Michael [Hirst] and Paul [Molakides], the dialect coach. A lot of what I did for the audition came from my own audition but once I got the part I relied on the team over there for developing my character.
Whether it is “Descendants,” Vikings” or anything in between, what is your process for bringing a character to life?
I think the most important thing is background. For something like Lonnie for “Descendants,” I went back and watched “Mulan” and did research on where the story came from. I wanted to make sure I incorporated some of the characteristics from Mulan into Lonnie. For example, the independence factor. She is a strong female personality and independent. I did the same thing for “Vikings.” It is a period piece, so I wanted to know all about the era she came from. I researched what dynasty was ruling, how women were treated back then and what rights we had. I did the research to learn as much as I could about my character’s background and what circumstances she could be living under. Creating the accent was a whole new hurdle! Making sure it wasn’t too broken but believable and not too westernized was a big challenge. Once you have all that it just comes down to the scripts and how it related. I like to bring substitutions, so I brought my own personal background to it and it helped. It did help coming onto the show in the way I did. Being brought to Kattegat is very similar to being brought to Ireland alone and a little confused as to what is going on, to be honest! [laughs] There is both formula and personal experience that goes into building my personal formula.
Building on that a bit, are there pieces of your personality we might see shining through in these characters?
For “Descendants,” I think it is Lonnie’s quirky aspects, like my little facial expressions and things like that. I guess I am a little bit weird! [laughs] It is definitely not the wardrobe because I am not that colorful! [laughs] I feel her quirky little behaviors are some of my own. For both Lonnie and Yidu, there is a sense of personal empowerment. I had to make sure my character, Yidu, was strong in her circumstances. I didn’t want her to be the victim, so I made sure she had a self-empowerment about her that I believe comes through from my own personality.
“Vikings” is known for having a great cast and you aren’t shooting under the easiest conditions. Everyone involved from the cast to the crew pour their hearts and souls into the project. What has it been like working in that environment and what have you learned along the way?
I loved the “Vikings” set because under those circumstances or conditions weather-wise, especially in Ireland where the weather is so unpredictable, there is just no time for ego. It is a huge team working together to make this show the best that it can be. That is something that was established very early on when I came on. The cast is just so talented. It is known that I am Ragnar’s new love interest, so I had a lot of time working opposite Travis Fimmel. He is phenomenal and probably the hardest worker I have come across. His process and method is very detail oriented. He always wants to make sure his character and everyone else’s characters are what it can be. He really pushes everyone around them to elevate their game and it was great.
I am sure you have done a lot of growing as an actor over the past few years. How have you most evolved since first starting?
The last two projects were so different that it was a growing experience in itself. “Descendants” allowed me to explore comedy. From the get-go they wanted it to be a successful franchise and venture for Disney, so there was some pressure for that. For “Vikings,” I felt it was the hardest job I had ever done, acting-wise, because I was pushed as an actor emotionally from directors and by the storylines. Everyone digs really deep to make these characters real. With every project I feel I have grown!
Where do you see yourself headed in the future? Is there a role or genre you are interested in tackling in the short term?
This is my first pilot season in LA, so I am going into it with no expectations. I am hoping to come across some really great projects, so I would love to tackle television again. I had such a great time with “Vikings,” to have that much time for a character and being able to continually grow them and nurture them is such an amazing process. I would love to do a feature film as well. That is a goal I would love to check off, along with cable television. I think that would be something really great to jump on because the story content is a lot grittier. I would love to explore that and test my range in that context!
Obviously, you are focused on expanding your horizons as an actor but do you aspire to explore the world behind the camera at some point?
Yeah. It’s interesting because I had never put a lot of thought into it because I figured I had to tackle one hurdle at a time by focusing on the art in front of the camera. However, being on “Vikings” and seeing different directors, specifically Helen Shavers, has been really inspiring. She is such a strong, beautifully independent and passionate woman, who came from an acting background. To see her behind the camera and be a part of her process of working out her vision was really cool. Maybe one day in the future, not right now but one day, I would love to take a crack at directing!
That is awesome to hear! I know you are also very passionate about broadening your horizons outside the world of acting and are pursuing a degree in marketing. Is it difficult to maintain a balance with all you have going on?
I am someone who can’t really sit still! [laughs] I get really anxious if I have too much time on my hands, so I like the juggling. Right now, I would love to focus 100% on acting but I am still currently in school. I took a little leave of absence but at that point I was teaching dance, taking acting classes, auditioning and going to school full-time. It was a busy period over the past couple of years! Luckily, I have put that on the back burner right now but I do have to go back to it.
What keeps you inspired these days when it comes to acting?
I love watching movies. For inspiration, when it comes to acting, I love going to acting class and watching other people tackle scenes and watching behaviors. It sounds weird but I love people watching! [laughs] In terms of people inspiring me, I have a few rocks in my life that I always look back on to keep me sane!
I’m sure many aspiring actors can look to you as an inspiration. What is the best lesson we can take from your journey so far?
It didn’t come easy. I think my work ethic is my strong point. I am also very stubborn and I don’t give up very easily, which helps! [laughs] I think staying determined and focused is very important in making any dream a reality.
Thanks so much for your time today, Dianne. We can’t wait to see what you have in store for us in the years to come!
Thank you so much, Jason! Take care!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.